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CHICAGO 101


Comiskey Park
333 W. 35th St.

Comiskey Park

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fans stay out of that cloud-poking upper deck

Exterior shots taken on the day of the 2003 All-Star Game. Interior shots taken during game v. Devil Rays, in which Frank Thomas hit his 400th home run.
2003 NB

New Comiskey | Old Comiskey | Comiskey Park Timeline

When it was finished in 1991, the new Comiskey Park peered over the roof of the old one, scornfully, it seemed--a manifestation of the contempt White Sox management had for their current stadium. The new facility was everything the old one wasn't--spacious, clean, and laced with plenty of luxury boxes. But the dissimilarities didn't end there. While the old park had charm and history, the new one looked artificial and disposable. The old park let you feel close enough to the players to hear them cuss; the new park--whose front row seat in the upper deck was farther from the field than the last row of the old park--was a vast chasm ("like looking into a pit," one fan told the Chicago Tribune). Most importantly, the old park was an integral part of Armour Square, its neighborhood on the South Side. The new stadium, which now sits in an urban desert of parking lots, plainly wants nothing to do with those who can see it from their front porches. If it did, White Sox management would have gone about planning the new Comiskey much differently. Instead, the new stadium's history is a sorry tale.

Many people forget that back in 1984, before the franchise's infamous flirtation with St. Petersburg, the White Sox had purchased a 140-acre site in Addison (the suburb, that is, not the street the Cubs play on), and applied for a government bond to build a new stadium there. The Sox wanted out of the South Side. Once, White Sox players had been kindred spirits with their working class neighborhood fans; by the mid-1980s, the team "felt ... exiled in an unfriendly setting," write Larry Bennett and Costas Spirou in It's Hardly Sportin': Stadiums, Neighborhoods, and the New Chicago. "It would be part of white flight, but that isn't the reason for the move," owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune at the time. "The fans moved away from the South Side. Why can't we?"

But Addison didn't want big-league ball in its backyard, and in December of 1986 the White Sox made a deal with the state of Illinois for a $120 million new stadium on 35th Street, across from the old Comiskey, funded by taxpayers. All seemed well. But in 1987, as the state and the city fought for control of the paperwork on the project, the team started glancing seductively at the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, which was building its Suncoast Dome and needed a reason to fill it. By early 1988, local government's wrangling over the Chicago project worsened, delaying the opening of the stadium from Opening Day 1990 to 1991, and the White Sox were swooning over St. Pete, which was offering succulent rental rates for the Suncoast. The franchise went back to the city of Chicago and demanded a better deal or they would pack their bags.

I was eight at the time, and I remember seeing television highlights of players hitting fly balls in the Suncoast Dome to see if the ceiling was high enough for big league ball. Back in Chicago, the idea of losing a civic institution to a small Sun Belt city was revolting. The media blasted the government for failing to sign a new stadium deal for the White Sox and endangering their future in town, momentarily forgetting that the White Sox already had a deal to stay in Chicago. Finally, in a midnight session in June of 1988, the Illinois legislature agreed to a new stadium deal. Taxpayers would now pay $150 million for the new park, not $120 million, and the government would agree to cancel the team's rent and pay for a few hundred thousand tickets if attendance fell to 1 million people per year. The White Sox would stay put after all. Former Sox executives have since said the team was never serious about moving. They just wanted to shake down the state for more money.

Because of the political climate of the new stadium's origins--the city's political tussles, the team's threat to migrate South, and the fact that the Cubs were generating another controversy on the North Side with their plans to put lights on Wrigley Field--a lot of things that should have happened didn't. Armour Square residents weren't given a serious chance to voice their opinions about the where the new stadium should go and how they would be compensated for relocating. An intriguing idea from the organization Save Our Sox, which called for the restoration of the old Comiskey as a national monument and historic tourist site, failed to win support as the panicking city and fans looked for a simpler solution. The same was true of Armour Field, a plan by New Urbanist architect Philip Bess for a more thoughtfully designed "urban ballpark," which would lie just north of the old one and would actually interact with its surroundings, as does Wrigley Field.

As Bennett and Spirou put it in their book:

Both the ... proposals aimed to tie stadium development to the adjoining neighborhoods' long-standing identity. In each case, advocates sought to present major-league baseball in a physical setting that matched their particular sense of tradition. Each of these alternative proposals viewed a professional sporting facility as an institution whose character could be enhanced by and, in turn, could enhance its local neighborhood enivironment. Such thinking clearly did not loom large in the minds of White Sox and [government] executives.

Instead, the Sox wanted and got a truly "suburban" structure, a plastic-looking, self-contained, parking-lot-skirted, vacuous stadium with little originality and not a drop of timelessness.

The greatest travesty of the new Comiskey is how it deliberately fails to embrace its neighbors despite being built with their tax dollars. The whole point of having the government pay for the new stadium--at least originally, before the government was held at gunpoint and just wanted to keep the team in town--was that the stadium would enrich what had become an impoverished area by creating jobs and street life. Bars, other businesses, and apartments could have been built around the park (as Bess' design specifically called for), turning the area into an actual place, not just a location. Local residents could have lived and made a living in the park's shadow. It could have been the South Side's answer to the Wrigley Field's Waveland and Sheffield streets. But what did the White Sox do? They put a clause in their stadium deal that no businesses could operate in proxmity to the park. A restraining order. A clause that prevented the exact economic boost they promised.

As a result, "Comiskey Park has clearly not set off streams of auxiliary economic development," write Bennett and Spirou. In fact, the authors found that the area actually lost jobs in the six years after the stadium opened. "It is also evident that the new ballpark has not contributed to upgrading its immediate environment."

In one final symbolic insult, which Bennett and Spirou document with palpable disgust, the franchise refused to build around or relocate McCuddy's Tavern--which stood across from the old park, and to which, as the story went, Babe Ruth used to sprint between innings for a quick brew (the pub proudly displayed a piece of carpet he was said to have torn with his cleats). It took an hour to tear McCuddy's down."The fate of McCuddy's," the authors write, encapsulates the broader failure to link stadium development and effective community development in the new Comiskey Park project."

The message was clear. This will be a stadium you drive to, park around, get in, get relieved of your money, and get back out again. This will not be a vital environment. This will be a disconnected destination. That's why it's so aggravating to read at WhiteSox.com that the franchise is "part of a uniquely historic Chicago neighborhood filled with excellent eating and drinking establishments. In and around [sponsored stadium name], fans are treated to great food and good times at some of the finest restaurants and bars in the city." Their consistent approach to, or reproach of, the community has made any talk from the White Sox franchise of "community relations" pure crap, brown and sticky. They had their chance, and the result is this forbidding monstrosity.

In an interiew with Bennett and Spirou in the Chicago Tribune, I asked them if it was too late for the team to make a meaningful connection with its neighbors. It was not, they said (the team could start by letting some businesses open on the same block). But, said Bennett, "Ultimately I don't think Jerry Reinsdorf wants that."

And, some might wonder, why should he? As principal architect Rick deFlon, who gets defensive about complaints of the park's desultory design (and whose firm ironically went on to design beautiful neighborhood-friendly ballparks in Baltimore and Cleveland), said; "I'm a dinky little stadium architect. I'm not trying to design cities." But the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin aptly responds: "It isn't asking too much for a taxpayer-financed public works project to being healing the city's wounds."

In 2003, one final link to history was severed; the franchise sold the naming rights for Comiskey Park to a cell phone company. But they're not paying me anything to say the new name, so I won't.
 

UPDATE: After the 2003 season, the White Sox embarked on a $28 million renovation of their ballpark with the intention of making the upper deck more fan-friendly. Wrote Blair Kamin: "Now, 12 years later, it is remarkable to see a publicly funded stadium that cost nearly $135 million being ripped apart to make it resemble the ballpark it should have been in the first place."

Old Comiskey Park Home Plate: 'Comiskey Park 1910-1900 Home Plate'

Fan tents on the day of the All-Star Game-

--Fan tents on the day of the All-Star Game

Relatives of Buck Weaver protest his ban from baseball outside the stadium on the day of the All-Star Game
2003 NB

Old Comiskey Park

Of Chicago's two most famous ballparks, the old Comiskey and Wrigley Field--which were both designed by Zachary Taylor Davis--you could argue that Comiskey was a fitter icon of the city's history. Only Comiskey exhibited Chicago's working class heritage, planted as it was in a workaday neighborhood. Before the age of millionaire athletes, the gritty players provided fans with relevant heroes (and the team's miserly owner, Charles Comiskey, nonetheless provided them with cheap bleacher seats). Only in Comiskey could you smell the stockyards. Only in Comiskey could you regularly see the first Mayor Daley in his box seat.

Towards the end of its life Comiskey surrendered its dignity to the gimmicks of eccentric owner Bill Veeck. Among the earliest was the scoreboard that, back in 1959, was rigged to launch fireworks after White Sox home runs (a tradition that continues in the new park). The most infamous was Disco Demolition Night in the summer of 1979. Fans could get in for under a buck if they brought a disco record to contribute to a bonfire. But when the fire was lit the crowd rushed the field and made such a mess that the White Sox had to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader.

One oddity of baseball lore is that although the White Sox have one of the longest championship droughts in sports, you hardly ever hear about it. The Cubs' famous futility--and their curse of the Billy Goat--and the Boston Red Sox' woes--and their curse of the Bambino--are much more legendary, even though the White Sox haven't won the World Series since 1917 (the Cubs last won in 1908 and the Red Sox in 1918). Perhaps this is because the White Sox had their chance in 1919, when they were favored but threw the World Series. No Sox team has won since. Call it the curse of the Black Sox.

Today, all that is left of the old Comiskey is the batter's box and home plate etched in the middle of a parking lot across from the new park. Painted foul lines stretch the length of the former field. The Chicago Tribune wrote that putting a parking lot on the site of the old Chicago Stadium ensured "a future of oil leaks where legends once cavorted." The same is true of the old Comiskey. Today, idle sedans and SUV's from the suburbs drip on this hallowed ground where 80 years of baseball history (see below) happened.

Blair Kamin:
The old park wasn't pretty, but when you plopped down in one of its green wooden seats, you felt close enough to the field that you could reach out and touch home plate, smell the turf, and hear what was going on when the catcher, pitcher, and manager conferred on the mound. And you knew you couldn't be anywhere else. ... The real test of a ballpark is how well it lets fans taste the flavor of baseball. It's a game of nuances--the pop of a fastball in the catcher's mitt versus the soft thud of an off-speed pitch--so it thrives on intimacy.
-from Why Architecture Matters


Comiskey Park Timeline
July 1, 1910
White Sox Park opens; owner Charles Comiskey pronounces it "baseball palace of the world."
October 13, 1917
White Sox beat the New York Giants 8-5 to go up three games to two in the World Series. Two days later they win in New York to clinch the championship, their second ever and last to this day.
September 5, 1918
Playing at Comiskey, the Chicago Cubs lose to Boston in Game 1 of the World Series.
October 9, 1919 
White Sox lose Game 8 of the World Series 10-5 to the visiting Cincinnati Reds to drop the series five games to three. Two years later, jury acquits eight "Black Sox" players of throwing the series, but Commissioner Landis bans them from baseball for life.
July 6, 1933
First Major League All Star Game created by the Chicago Tribune to coincide with Chicago's World's Fair. Babe Ruth hits two-run homer to lift the American League to a 4-2 win.
Sept. 10, 1933
First Negro League All-Star Game.
June 22, 1937
Joe Louis defeats James Braddock for his first heavyweight title.
July 5, 1947
Larry Doby, pinch hitting for the visiting Cleveland Indians, becomes the first African American to play in the American League.
Dec. 28, 1947
Wearing tennis shoes for traction on the slippery field, the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 for their only NFL championship
July 11, 1950
In the first extra-inning All-Star Game, Ted Williams' fifth inning RBI single gives the American League the lead (the National League went on to win 4-3 in 14 innings). After the game Williams learned that he broke his left elbow in the first inning while crashing into the outfield wall for a catch.
May 1, 1951
Minnie Minoso becomes the first African American to play for the White Sox. In his first at bat, he hits a home run.
September 25, 1962
Sonny Liston knocks out Floyd Patterson to win his first heavyweight title.
August 20, 1965
The Beatles perform two concerts, their only outdoor appearances in Chicago
July 12, 1979
Disco Demolition night turns riotous, leading to a White Sox forfeit of the second game of a doubleheader
Sep 22, 1981
Chicago Sting defeat the San Diego Sockers to advance to the finals of of the North American Soccer League. 
July 6, 1983
Angels' Fred Lynn hits first-ever All Star Game Grand Slam to lead the American League to a 13-3 victory.

New Comiskey:
April 9, 1993
Bo Jackson becomes the first player in history to play with an artificial hip. He knocks his first pitch out of the park. 
July 15, 1994
During a game, Cleveland Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley breaks into umpires' dressing room and removes teammate Albert Belle's confiscated corked bat. He replaces the bat with one that--alas--bears the name of teammate Paul Sorrento.
August 12, 1994
With the White Sox in first place, major league players go on a season-ending strike. Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is perceived to be instrumental in prompting the players' strike.
June 16, 1997
White Sox host Cubs in first-ever regular season meeting, lose 8-3 before taking the next two games. 
Sept. 28, 1997
Frank Thomas finishes season with .347 average, becoming the second Sox player ever to win the American League batting title.
July 15, 2003
American League wins All-Star Game 7-6; first time the game decides home field advantage in the World Series.

See also:
-It's Hardly Sportin': Stadiums, Neighborhoods, and the New Chicago by Larry Bennett and Costas Spirou
-My interview with the authors: "Are Chicago's professional sports stadiums good neighbors?" Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2003
-"Take me out to (and in) the ballparks," Lou Carlozo, Chicago Tribune, July 18, 2003
-"[Comiskey] all aglow, but poverty in shadows," John McCormick, Chicago Tribune, July 13, 2003

-More about New Comiskey from Ballparks.com
-Picture of New Comiskey from Ballparks.com
-More about New Comiskey from WhiteSox.com
-More about New Comiskey from BallparksofBaseball.com

-More about Old Comiskey from Ballparks.com
-More about Old Comiskey from WhiteSoxInteractive.com
-Pictures of Old Comiskey from WhiteSoxInteractive.com
-Pictures of Old Comiskey from StadiumPage.com

-1991 picture of the two adjacent Comiskey Parks from Ballparks.com
-History of both Comiskey Parks from WhiteSox.com
-Team timeline from WhiteSox.com
-More about the Black Sox from the Chicago HIstorical Society
-More about the Black Sox trial from Famous Trials Online
-Chicago White Sox all-time stats from Baseball-Reference.com

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Nathan L.K. Bierma
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